As someone whose second language is English, I have always been fascinated by English language expressions. I remember, for example, explaining the meaning of “the whole nine yards” to a colleague whose first language is not English. The face they made was memorable, when they could not understand how what seemed to be a reference to sports had made its way into a church meeting.
One of my favorites is the advice to “read the room.” It usually means to be intentional in picking up on the subtle nonverbal cues that surround you in a particular place. For a speaker, this may be knowing when a joke will work and when it will not work. For a teacher, it is discerning whether one activity or exercise will work for their group. On social media, it is the practice of knowing what to comment and when.
As I read the definition of ruling elder in the Book of Order (G-2.0301), the connection between the words "ruling" and "reading the room" seems apparent to me. “Ruling elders are so named not because they ‘lord it over’ the congregation (Matt. 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life.”
Instead of emphasizing "ruling" as exerting power or authority, which is its more popular definition as an adjective, the description goes back to the origin of the word. In Latin, the word "regula" means straightedge or measuring stick, bar or ruler.
So, the way for a ruling elder to strengthen and nurture the faith and life of the congregation is to be effective in reading the room, in discerning the needs of the community of faith, and in always measuring the efforts to build the kin-dom of God in the place where the church has been placed and beyond.
But what are the parameters for reading the room? What do ruling elders measure against to figure out if the vitality of the congregation is up to par? This kind of measuring is not based necessarily on numbers, which is what we use to let us know how many new members we have or how the offerings are for a particular month. I propose that one “measuring stick” for reading the room and measuring the vitality of congregations is that ruling elders begin each year by looking at G-1.0304, The Ministry of Members.
“Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ is a joy and a privilege. It is also a commitment to participate in Christ’s mission. A faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace and promises to be involved responsibly in the ministry of Christ’s Church. Such involvement includes:
proclaiming the good news in word and deed,
taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation,
lifting one another up in prayer, mutual concern, and active support,
studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life,
supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time and talents,
demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church,
responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others,
living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural and social relationships of life,
working in the world for peace, justice, freedom and human fulfillment,
caring for God’s Creation,
participating in the governing responsibilities of the church, and
reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful.”
These involvements should be the guide and measurement for all church members, but especially for ruling and teaching elders. These are ways for ruling elders to continue to grow in lives that are demonstrations of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world (G-2.0104).
They are also measurements with which to evaluate the life of a congregation. Are you, as a ruling elder, proclaiming the good news in word and deed? What are some of the ways your church is doing this? Are you, as a ruling elder, demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church? How are the people who are connected to your congregation giving witness to the new life they have received in Christ Jesus? In what ways are you working as a ruling elder for peace, justice, freedom, human fulfillment and caring for God’s Creation? What is your church doing to contribute to this work?
Ruling elders are called because the congregation has discerned that they are “persons of wisdom and maturity of faith” who have “demonstrated skills in leadership” and are “compassionate in spirit” (G-2.0301). Discernment continues as you seek to measure the work of the church you have been called to lead. You are called to read the room, to always be alert to the church’s fidelity to the Word of God, and to find ways to strengthen and nurture its faith and life. And using the Ministry of Members as a measuring stick for your life and the life of the congregation could be one of the ways to do so.
- How do you keep a balance between the governance and administrative aspect of your call as a ruling elder and your responsibility to discern and measure your church’s fidelity to the Word of God?
- How do you, as a member of your congregation, measure your own life to consider ways in which your participation in the worship and service of your church may be increased and made more meaningful?
- How do you “read the room” and examine the ways your congregation and its members are living out their ministry and impacting the community around them?
Marissa Galván-Valle is a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She is the senior editor for Spanish Language Resources in the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation and temporary pastor at Beechmont Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, an intercultural church that worships each Sunday in Spanish and English. She was ordained as a ruling elder when she was 21 years old.